Beginning 2010, Sarah Marquis left Siberia and travelled south through the Gobi Desert to China, Laos and Thailand, before sailing to Australia where she continued south to the Nullarbor Plain. Sarah journeyed alone and for three years barely had any human contact, but, what is most remarkable is that she covered the land by foot – all 1,000 days and nights of it. It’s an endeavour which saw her named an Adventurer of the Year for 2014 by National Geographic – rather poetic considering she spent much of her youth devouring page after page of the famed publication.
“That was so incredible as I never thought I would get there,” says Sarah from her home in the Swiss Alps. “It was never my intention. I was just a curious little girl — and I remain so. I just want to understand. Walking is my way of understanding.”
A trip to New Zealand 20 years ago, specifically the Queen Charlotte track, first infected Sarah with the hiking bug. “It rained for four days straight,” she says. “I was so unprepared. My backpack was too heavy, I had too many books and a radio. But there was this moment, under the rain, where I looked out over the fern trees and the fiords and felt in harmony with nature.”
Later explorations included walking 4,260km from the Canadian to the Mexican border and an eight-month, 7,000-km hike through the Andes. Between 2002-2003, Sarah spent 17 months strolling 14,000km of the unforgiving Australian outback where she made a poignant promise to a lonesome tree. “The tree stands on this long stretch of nothing,” Sarah tells me. “I camped beneath it and when I left, told it that one day I would be back.” A decade later she was, choosing the tree as the finishing point of her three-year trek. The footage of their reunion is heart-wrenching – a beautiful, tearful moment. “It was so personal. It was the end of the day, the sun was setting and I had been walking for three years to this, my final destination.”
Some might interpret putting one’s body under such emotional and physical strain as some form of self-punishment?
“Not at all, I’m a really happy person. I’m just a girl-next-door, I’m not special, I just want to know what we’re made of. I want to see what we have inside us. That’s what I’ve been doing all these years, I’ve been researching.”
And what have you learnt?
“For me, walking is a cleansing process. Our bodies need to be serviced, just like cars. Before I left for the three-year walk, my doctor checked my blood numbers and when I returned, some of them had gone up, including my iron levels. This is incredible, especially as I’m a woman and don’t eat meat. I lost 5kg in the first month, but then my body adapted. Our bodies of course have many requirements, but fasting is also important too.”
Sarah’s body was pushed even further last year during a three-month expedition in the Australian bush living as Aboriginal people have been living for millennia by surviving purely off the land. “My question was, ‘Can a white female female survive in this environment?’ It’s very technical, not just a case of learning which plants do what. You have to be able to read the landscape, to see which trees will lead you to which birds which will lead you to water. It’s like reading a treasure map, very challenging.”
Tougher than the walks?
“Yes, it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”
Sarah makes the point that walking is the speed at which humans are designed to move before senses become overwhelmed: “Anything faster and our eyes and ears begin to miss things.”
But it’s not just the small stuff we’re missing. “We don’t understand the simple things, you know? If we keep doing what we’re doing, there will be no planet left. We need clean air, clean water. One of the biggest questions we are faced with today is, ‘How we are going to feed all the people on this planet?’ We can’t continue as as we are. We can’t continue to consume meat as we are, consuming space and resources. We need to rethink our whole way of living.” It’s the poorer countries which suffer first and suffer most, yet from them we can learn so much. “We need to understand that we don’t need all the stuff we have. I lived for three years with a teapot, a spoon and knife!”
That Sarah is so passionate I expected, what I didn’t expect is for someone so used — and drawn — to spending such great stretches alone to be so personable, too. I wonder how she copes with what must, at times, be unimaginable bouts of loneliness. “It’s a process,” she says. “After six months you reach a stage where you’re in complete harmony with nature. Identity ceases to exist and you become part of everything, simply living for the moment. And then, the loneliness simply disappears.”
Photos: Sarah Marquis
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Sarah’s book, Wild by Nature,
which tells the story of her three year trek,
is out now. Find out more at sarahmarquis.ch